Brutal virus impact: 'A million jobs lost overnight'


A federal government minister says "hundreds of thousands, maybe a million" people were left unemployed overnight by drastic shutdown measures to stop the spread of coronavirus. 

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert made the comments this morning amid fears up to two million Australians could find themselves out of work in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, as thousands of people queued up outside Centrelink offices around the country for the second day.

As states and territories continue to report record one-day increases in new cases, experts warn up to 15 million Australians could contract the virus in coming months, sparking fears hospitals could be overwhelmed.

There are now at least 1882 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia with seven deaths so far. There are 818 in New South Wales, 411 in Victoria, 319 in Queensland, 134 in South Australia, 140 in Western Australia, 28 in Tasmania, 32 in the Australian Capital Territory and five in the Northern Territory.

The Australian government has passed a multi-billion financial assistance package that will include a $550 coronavirus supplement for those eligible.

A million jobs lost overnight'

Frank Chung

Just to reiterate, Government Services Minister Stuart Robert this morning said "hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, people" were left "unemployed overnight" by the coronavirus shutdown.

Mr Robert was addressing criticism after Monday's chaos that saw people in tears being turned away from Centrelink offices and the myGov website crashing under unprecedented demand.

He was left with egg on his face after falsely claiming the website issues were a result of a cyber attack. "I probably should have waited for the investigation before jumping the gun," he told 2GB.

"We prepared, over the weekend, for 55,000 I didn't think I'd have to prepare for 100,000 concurrent users. My bad not realising the sheer scale of the decision on Sunday night by national leaders that literally saw hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, people unemployed overnight."

There are fears the unemployment rate in Australia could rise as high as 15 per cent or more, up from 5.1 per cent, with two million people left out of work.

Mr Robert and Social Services Minister Anne Ruston have urged people not to queue up in massive lines outside Centrelink, saying claims can be done online and will be backdated.

  24m agoMarch 24, 2020HIGHLIGHT

Abbott calls for 'complete shutdown'

Frank Chung

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has called for a "complete shutdown" to stop the spread of coronavirus.

"We need to have a very, very complete shutdown now to do everything we humanly can to prevent the spread of the disease," Mr Abbott told 2GB earlier today.

"You can only put the economy into a coma for so long, it can't be indefinite, but the more complete it is now the more likely it is to be shortlived."

In 2005, when he was Health Minister, Mr Abbott warned that a pandemic could be the "worldwide biological version of the Indian Ocean tsunami".

  1h agoMarch 24, 2020HIGHLIGHT

Michael Hill closes 300 stores

Alexis Carey

Iconic jewellery chain Michael Hill has taken the extraordinary step of closing 300 shops around the globe as a result of the escalating COVID-19 crisis.

In a statement issued to investors this morning, the ASX-listed company revealed it was taking drastic measures as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated sales.

"In Australia, the current 'social distancing' guidelines are not consistent with the day-to-day conduct of our business," the statement reads.


  1h agoMarch 24, 2020HIGHLIGHT

Tasmania's drastic new measure

Frank Chung

Tasmania will start turning people away if they arrive on the TT-Line without a good reason to enter the state.

Premier Peter Gutwein announced the new "hard-line" position this morning. The state had previously said any non-essential entrants would be subject to mandatory 14-day quarantine.

"In terms of TT-Line, as of today there is a hard-line position in place that unless you're an essential traveller, or a Tasmanian returning home on the TT-Line, you will not be travelling with us," Mr Gutwein told reporters.

"The self-isolation rules have been applied and largely are being adhered to but I want to be absolutely certain and so, as from today, if you are travelling to Tasmania and it's non-essential travel, do not come. Do not get on the TT-Line. What we will do is turn you around and ask you to go back."

The new stance appears to be the country's strictest internal border control so far.

Tasmanian officials also gave an update on the state's latest coronavirus numbers released last night.

There were a further six cases detected - bringing the state's total to 28 - five of them from cruise ships and one recently returned from overseas.

Four came from the Ruby Princess that arrived in Sydney on March 19 and one was from the Celebrity Solstice that arrived in Sydney on March 20.

In total, 11 of Tasmania's 28 cases came from cruise ships, nine from the Ruby Princess, one from the Celebrity Solstice and one from the Ovation of the Seas.

Anyone who was on any of those three ships, or the Voyager of the Seas, are being ordered to self-isolate for 14 days.

  1h agoMarch 24, 2020HIGHLIGHT

'My bad': myGov 'hack' backdown

Frank Chung

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert is encouraging people to avoid lining up outside Centrelink offices and apply online instead, despite the website crashing on Monday.

Mr Robert has admitted he was wrong to blame hackers for bringing the myGov website down, when it was actually overwhelmed by sacked Australians scrambling for benefits.

"I probably should have waited for the investigation before jumping the gun," he told 2GB radio on Tuesday.

"We prepared over the weekend for 55,000. I didn't think I'd have to prepare for 100,000 concurrent users. My bad not realising the sheer scale of the decision on Sunday night by national leaders that literally saw hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, people unemployed overnight."

Labor is demanding a dedicated Centrelink hotline be established to help people navigate the welfare systemPeople were again queuing outside Centrelink offices on Tuesday morning, mirroring devastating scenes across the country on Monday when thousands lined up to register for unemployment benefits.

Labor social services spokeswoman Linda Burney has urged the government to set up a single phone number so people can get answers from Centrelink.

"They are scared, they are confused and they are stressed because of drastic changes to their financial situation," she told ABC radio.

"What they want is care, what they want is answers, what they want is urgency. Get the payments out, cut the red tape and worry about the paperwork later. People need help now."

The myGov online portal crashed on Monday after it was overwhelmed by newly unemployed Australians, many of whom were making their first approach to Centrelink.

Social Services Minister Anne Ruston says no one could have predicted the spike in the level of demand, even though the government shut down a number of industries to combat the spread of the virus.

"We clearly understand the distress that this coronavirus is causing," she told Nine's Today show earlier.

The government is now appealing to people trying to register with Centrelink to hold off for a few days.

"We are asking for patience and calm. What we saw yesterday was heartbreaking," Senator Ruston said.

There was no excuse for what happened, Senator Ruston said.

Centrelink will boost its workforce by 5000 people to deal with the influx of applicants and extend call centre hours.

But there will be fewer workers at the centres because of social distancing requirements. No pop-up shopfronts are planned.

Many families, workers and business owners have been forced to seek social security as the pandemic throws the national economy into chaos.

Senator Ruston said unless people had no phone or internet access, there was no need for them to line up at Centrelink offices.

- Rebecca Gredley and Daniel McCulloch, AAP

  2h agoMarch 24, 2020HIGHLIGHT

Victorian cases rise to 411

Frank Chung

There are now 411 cases of coronavirus confirmed in Victoria.

This brings us to 1882 nationally.

Premier Daniel Andrews said there had been 56 new positive cases identified since Monday morning.

The increased tally comes as the first full day of Victoria's shutdown sees all schools closed, empty courts and most of the hospitality industry crumbling.

Mr Andrews said the measures were tough, but they have to be in order to curb the spread of the deadly illness, and implored people to follow the isolation, social distancing and shut down rules.


  2h agoMarch 24, 2020HIGHLIGHT

'I don't care what criticism I get'

Frank Chung

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has angrily hit back at suggestions she has caused confusion among parents after yesterday saying schools would stay open but urging kids to stay home.

"Look, our direction in schools is very clear," she said.

"Schools stay open. If you need to send your child to school, schools stay open. However, we are recommending at this time that parents keep their children at home. And I said that yesterday, and I say that again today."

Ms Berejiklian bristled at a reporter's suggestion that she had caused an "unacceptable" level of confusion on schools.

"I don't care what criticism I get," she said.

"Throw it at me, because I'm doing it because I believe it's in the best interests of the citizens of New South Wales."

Ms Berejiklian reiterated she had a "no-regrets policy".

"I'm incredibly pleased with the decisions we've taken to date, I don't regret any of them, because I believe they're in the best interests of our citizens, and I continue to make decisions based on the best interests of our citizens, because we are in uncertain times," she said.

"I want to look back and think that every time we made a decision it was the right one for our people."

Ms Berejiklian said NSW was a very different state to the rest of Australia, with the highest number of cases and the most people returned from overseas.

"But to give you assurance, we also have the highest rates of testing, and that's what's giving me comfort," she said.

She said she appreciated it was a challenging time for parents and noted that up to a third were already keeping their children home last week.

"Yesterday, that number went up substantially, even before the messaging around what we were recommending," she said.

"Let me be frank - based on health advice, we don't know what the next five or six weeks will look like. We are entering a period where our schools are about to go into school holidays, and it's appropriate for us to make sure we get the home learning up and ready."

She added, "This has been a good chance for us, an opportunity for us, to make sure that whether it's through web-based tools or whether it's through home learning, that we have the systems in place to support our children, to support our students, given what we might face into the future."

  3h agoMarch 24, 2020HIGHLIGHT

149 new cases in NSW

Frank Chung

Latest numbers from NSW - 149 new cases overnight.

That brings the state to a total of 818 cases.

That's the biggest one-day increase - again - after yesterday's record jump of 136 new cases.

Thirteen people are currently in intensive care, NSW Chief Medical Officer Dr Kerry Chant said. That number was 10 yesterday.

Of NSW's cases, 174 are locally acquired and 425 are overseas acquired.

"It is essential that anyone who has returned from overseas since the requirements to self-isolate through the border have been put in place, we urge you to please comply," Dr Chant said.

Nationally, we now count 1831 confirmed cases of COVID-19. That's based on a tally of numbers provided by each state and territory.

Read more here.

  3h agoMarch 24, 2020HIGHLIGHT

'Harsh penalties' as virus spreads

Frank Chung

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is speaking to media now.

She says the state is in a "critical stage" with coronavirus and is threatening "harsh penalties" for people failing to comply with the new lockdown measures.

"We are ramping up our compliance," Ms Berejiklian said.

"We're making sure that people are followed up. If they're supposed to be in self-isolation and they're not, there are harsh penalties and we'll enforce that."

  3h agoMarch 24, 2020HIGHLIGHT

'Everyone's fine', cruise ship says

Frank Chung

West Australian police and Australian Border Force officers are ready to monitor the docks as cruise ship Magnifica slowly heads towards Fremantle.

Premier Mark McGowan is adamant no one on board will be allowed ashore when the vessel refuels on Tuesday morning as he says at least 250 of more than 1700 passengers are suffering upper respiratory illness.

Operator MSC has denied that any crew or passengers on the ship, which departed Italy in January, have respiratory or flu-like illnesses.

Mr McGowan has confirmed that both police and border guards will monitor Magnifica when it refuels, to ensure no one disembarks.

The ship was about 250km southwest of Fremantle at midnight local time.

WA will clamp down on all interstate road, rail and port traffic and order all interstate arrivals to isolate for 14 days from 1.30pm on Tuesday.

On Monday, Health Minister Roger Cook said the state had 20 new coronavirus cases, bringing WA's total to 140. Two people are in hospital in a critical condition.

Mr McGowan said parents can keep their children home from school but they must not roam shops and beaches.

Schools will remain open until the end of term with the state to provide tools to allow students to continue learning.

Education Minister Sue Ellery said it was "too early to call" any changes to ATAR exams, but plans were in place to ensure Year 12 students are not disadvantaged.



Qantas to operate Darwin-London flight

Victoria Craw

Qantas will operate its Sydney to London service via Darwin from Tuesday after restrictions in Singapore over refuelling.

The change to the flagship route will be the first ever non-stop flight from Darwin to London and will refuel there.

It will take 16 hours and 45 minutes to fly to London from Darwin and 16 hours and 20 minutes on the return from London, the NT News reports.

Passengers will stay on board the plane while there.

  11:59 pmMarch 24, 2020

Aussies could see 15 million cases, experts warn

Victoria Craw

Australia could see 15 million cases of coronavirus within months unless the public gets serious about social distancing, a medical expert has warned.

La Trobe University forecaster Dr Joel Miller told News Corp Australia "it was not unreasonable" for such a case to unfold in the absence of preventative measures.

However it's too early to tell how big a dent the social distancing measures will make in terms of that number.

Australia has 1717 cases of coronavirus confirmed but doctors have warned many more cases could be circulating in the community.

The sharp escalation of cases, dubbed "hockey stick" growth, could see NSW run out of intensive care beds within three weeks, a doctor told the ABC Q&A programme on Monday night.

Australian Medical Association NSW president Dr Kean-Seng Lim said COVID-19 cases were currently doubling every three days in NSW.

"If isolation policies are successful we are hoping to see a reduction in community transmission in two to three weeks," he said.

  11:48 pmMarch 24, 2020

Parliament approves multi-billion dollar virus package

Victoria Craw

Parliament has passed a series of bills giving the green light to a whopping multi-billion package to cushion the economic blow of coronavirus.

On Monday night two packages worth $17.6 billion and $66 billion were passed. Separate legislation made a $40 billion provision for urgent and unforeseen spending associated with the outbreak.

Coronavirus is likely to cause a deep global recession with huge impacts on everything from financial markets to the airline industry and small businesses.


Jobseeker, youth allowance, parenting and special benefit payments will be boosted by $550 a fortnight as part of a temporary coronavirus supplement, which will also be extended to full-time students.

The government will also be able to change welfare settings without legislation. There will also be two $750 payments for welfare recipients.

Small lenders will get a $15 billion boost from the government while businesses will get cash injections to encourage them to keep staff on during the crisis.

Other measures included are designed to support tourism and aviation sectors.


  11:40 pmMarch 24, 2020

Who is eligible for $550 coronavirus supplement?

Victoria Craw

More than one million people could be forced onto welfare by the massive economic shutdown sparked by the coronavirus, according to reports.

The Prime Minister has warned the virus could plunge Australia into an economic crisis not seen since the Great Depression.

Small businesses are under particular pressure as many have been ordered to close - leaving business owners between a rock and a hard place over how to pay staff while not bringing in any income.


The government has announced, subject to legislation passing, Centrelink would:

  • Pay a temporary fortnightly $550 coronavirus supplement from 27 April 2020 to those getting an eligible payment already
  • Extend eligibility for the first $750 economic support payment to pay it from 31 March 2020 if you're getting an eligible payment on any day from 12 March to 13 April 2020
  • Expand eligibility for some payments and make them easier to claim
  • Make crisis payments available for those self-isolating or in severe financial hardship
  • Pay a second $750 economic support payment from 13 July 2020 if you're getting an eligible payment or have an eligible concession card on 10 July 202


Those eligible for the coronavirus supplement payment include those currently receiving jobseeker payment, youth allowance for job seekers, parenting payment, farm household allowance and special benefit.

More info about payments and eligibility can be found on the Centrelink website.

  11:29 pmMarch 24, 2020

Queensland school strike looming

Victoria Craw

A teachers strike could be looming in Queensland if the state government does not shut down schools by Wednesday.

Members of the Queensland Teachers Union met with Queensland premier and health officials on Monday to discuss their concerns about schools remaining open.

The Union said "progress" had been made regarding the exclusion of sick students and vulnerable teachers, as well as teachers and school leaders in remote communities.

The body will make a final decision after a National Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. On Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared a raft of businesses including restaurants, cafes, bars and gyms would close but schools should remain open.

Victoria and ACT will shut down schools on Tuesday and QLD teachers union president Kevin Bates said the decision by some states to go it alone has sent the QLD position into doubt.

"I acknowledge our position all the way along was to accept the medical advice on the basis everybody was in the same boat," Mr Bates told the Seven Network on Monday.

"What we now have is two jurisdictions who have decided to move early to school holidays and that creates an entirely confusing message.

"We can't accept that, if other state and territories, other jurisdictions, move to a new position that Queensland can't adopt a similar strategy."

Queensland schools are officially open but parents can choose to keep kids home if they want to or are able to.


Originally published as 15 million Aussies could get coronavirus